Polls suggest a majority of Britons now think leaving the European Union was wrong.
NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images
LONDON — Almost seven years and four Prime Ministers since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, polls suggest public sentiment has turned anti-Brexit.
In the latest YouGov poll released last week, 53% said leaving the UK was the wrong decision, versus 32% who still believed it was the right decision. Ipsos polls in January showed that 45% of the population felt Brexit had made their daily lives worse, versus just 11% who said it had made their lives better.
A survey conducted by Focaldata and UnHerd late last year found that out of around 10,000 respondents nationwide, 54% either “strongly agree” or “tend to agree” that “Britain was wrong to leave the EU”.
28% of the 632 parliamentary constituencies in Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) only slightly or strongly disagreed with the statement and only in one constituency of Boston and Skegness on the East Midlands coast did more people disagree than agree , which also had the highest percentage of Brexit votes in 2016.
The UK economy is expected to be the worst performer in the G-20 over the next two years, while a cost of living crisis and political unrest have compounded the Conservative government’s headaches.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s ruling party now trails the main opposition Labor party by more than 20 points in public polls ahead of the 2024 general election.
Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, told CNBC that there have been two major shifts in public attitudes towards Brexit.
“The first is the growing number of people, including pro-Leave voters, who are now saying they think the government has handled Brexit badly – that is, they see this as a government failure,” he said.
“The second thing is the increasing number of Leavers and other voters who see Brexit as a negative economic impact.”
This is backed up by the latest YouGov poll which found that 68% of respondents thought the government had handled Brexit poorly, versus just 21% who said the Conservatives had handled it well.
Sunak on Monday announced a new deal with the European Union aimed at tackling the Northern Ireland Protocol, a controversial part of the existing disengagement regime that enforced controls on goods being transported from Britain to Northern Ireland via the Irish Sea.
It remains to be seen if this will pan out in Conservatives’ favor at all, but YouGov found that those who now regret voting to leave make up 7% of voters (excluding those who would not vote).
“Before the 2019 general election, that figure was around 4%. These changes may not seem massive, but given the stagnant opinions on EU membership since the referendum, this change in preferences could have an impact,” said the pollster.
“Those who voted to leave but are now unsure if it was the right decision now make up another 4% of voters, leaving the total pool of exits who no longer think it was the right decision to be about accounts for one in nine voters (11%).”
Menon noted that ironically, in early 2020 shortly after the UK left the EU, Brexit began to negatively affect the economy, but the impact has been clouded by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sectors from agriculture and fisheries to car manufacturing and pharmaceuticals have highlighted difficulties they have faced as a direct result of Brexit in recent years.
Now, Menon argued that the opposite is happening, as many of Britain’s current economic woes are not primarily due to Brexit, but instead spotlighting its adverse effects.
“There is absolutely no doubt that Brexit is partly to blame for the pretty bad economic numbers we’re seeing out of the UK, particularly bad compared to other G-7 economies,” he said.
But longer-term factors were at play, and he suggested that a long stagnation in living standards, caused in part by David Cameron’s government’s austerity policies, contributed to the anger unleashed in the working class at the Brexit vote.
Brexit is “redefined”
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019 by pledging to “get Brexit done” and touting a “furnished” exit deal he negotiated with the European Union. In that campaign, the Conservative pro-Brexit candidates overturned a wave of former “Red Wall” Labor constituencies.
Menon stressed that more than three years later, Brexit is being “redefined” – from a cultural, values-based issue uniting voters who might otherwise be fiercely bickering about the economy, to a primarily economic issue.
“This is problematic for the government because the Brexit coalition that Boris Johnson put together is united on cultural issues but very divided on economic issues and therefore cannot respond effectively and in a coordinated manner and we see this in the parliamentary Conservative Party .” he explained.
“There are arguments about things on which most political parties in the past have basically agreed, namely the fundamentals of economic strategy.”
Also, Brexit is no longer a focus for most voters. The latest Ipsos Issues Index showed that the National Health Service is the issue of most concern to the public, with 42% of respondents mentioning it. The economy and inflation, which had dominated the series last year, were cited by 37% and 36%, respectively.
In January 2019, the year of the last general election, Brexit/Europe was a key issue for 72% of voters, the biggest concern since September 1974. By October 2022, this proportion had fallen to 6%.
Issues such as the UK’s recent vegetable shortages and rising food prices have been linked to Brexit by British political commentators and lawmakers of certain persuasions. Menon suggested that Brexit advocates could try to make the same causal link if the economy has recovered three years from now, if only in terms of how people are feeling on a day-to-day basis.
“There isn’t necessarily a causal link between the two, just like there isn’t necessarily a close causal link between the cost-of-living crisis and Brexit, but people will play it up politically and it will then be interesting to see what happens to public opinion. It’s very early,” he said.